Paul Carrese in National Review:
“How Civics Can Remedy Higher Education’s Decline”
Paul Carrese, JMC’s Senior Fellow for Civic Thought and Leadership, appears in National Review today, writing on the crisis in higher ed and the crucial purpose of civic education:
American higher education is in the throes of an unprecedented crisis. Two Ivy League presidents and a board chair have recently resigned amid scandal. The Ivies and other prestigious private universities should consider a practical reform, now spreading across several public universities, that recovers a core academic mission and restores public trust. Restoration of the traditional civic mission of public universities — providing a blend of liberal-arts and American civic education to future leaders — offers even left-leaning administrators and trustees a path toward meeting their enlightened self-interest. Prudent alums, donors, and trustees should urge them to consider it as a reasonable step to redress rising controversy and cratering legitimacy.
Indeed, just as astounding as the recent calamities at these great institutions is the American public’s loss of confidence in higher education itself in recent years. It’s not surprising that conservatives and Republicans have declining trust, given the obvious ideological shift leftward on most campuses. But now the national polling registers a collapse of confidence among self-identified independents. What once was deemed the Ivory Tower is underwater, so to speak. Restoring that trust is an urgent task for higher education and for America, and it starts with recovering higher education’s core missions.
It is the ideological shift, and resulting loss of legitimacy, that really caused the crises engulfing Penn, Harvard, and other leading campuses. Trustees, presidents, and other leaders embodied the left-progressive orthodoxy dominating most American universities and colleges. The dearth of intellectual diversity among these leaders, and most faculty as well, blinded them to the shocking contradiction exposed in the congressional testimony of three such presidents. Their campuses were already notorious in recent years for suppressing newly impermissible views about race, class, gender, and oppressed groups, and for imposing DEI ideological litmus tests on faculty and staff hiring. Then, they insisted that a doctrine of free speech should protect open advocacy of genocide against Jews.
The public scandal, and cratering of public confidence, are the price paid for demoting core academic missions of pursuing knowledge and truth, debating contested ideas in properly academic ways, and teaching the next generation of civic, economic, intellectual, and social leaders of American constitutional democracy. Academic leaders ignored the new national organizations like Heterodox Academy warning about these corrosive dogmas and the elimination of traditional missions and ideas. These leaders also dismissed as conservative crankery the concerns about exclusion of important debates and viewpoints, and the resulting violation of a broad public trust — since private universities and colleges proclaim they educate leaders for America, and receive enormous federal funding and societal status in return.
The promise of American higher education is worth the effort needed to restore core academic missions and proper civic roles. I was asked seven years ago to lead such a reform at Arizona State University, America’s largest public university, by establishing a new department offering the kind of civic education once central to colleges and universities — but repudiated or neglected for many decades. The School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) was funded directly by the Arizona government. It provides a model for renewal which can inspire trust and true reform.
For the past half-century and more in American higher education, we’ve forgotten (or deliberately neglected) that phrasing about civic education is widespread across the charters and mottoes of our public universities. Indeed, the 1789 charter of America’s first public university, in North Carolina, included education in “social duties” as a main aim. The institution Jefferson and Madison founded, the University of Virginia, is also well-known for such a civic mission, which subsequently spread across the American states, and across the decades of the 19th and 20th centuries, as new universities were established.
One origin of the decline of civic education was the new model of the research university imported from Germany in the late 19th century. This and other progressive, secularizing changes in American political culture across the past 150 years have chipped away at the traditional civic mission of public and private higher education. As Josh Dunn and Jon Shields documented in their study of the declining presence of conservatives in higher education, political science and several other humanities and social-sciences fields have aggressively or quietly repudiated this traditional blend of liberal arts and civic education in recent decades. The new view in these fields, and regarding general education requirements, held that civics wasn’t a real academic field, merely a subject for K–12 schools. Further, universities and colleges replaced civics with an emphasis on progressive engagement and activism. And that politicized spirit eventually came to dominate what little space remained for civics and history education in K–12 schools.
In 2016 in Arizona, the legislature and then-governor Doug Ducey grasped these trends and decided to take positive action. They sensed that a great public university, in the state capital, wasn’t providing the blend of classical liberal education and American civic education to prepare civic-minded leaders for public life, the private sector, and civil society. They mandated, and funded, a new department devoted to education in civic thought and leadership. The board of regents supported the reform, and ASU’s leaders implemented it in good faith; a higher kind of civic education should at least be an option at a great university.
Left-leaning faculty at ASU, and both Arizona and national journalists, immediately protested that the establishment of SCETL was a merely political intervention. This was a barely plausible response in the early years; more recent echoes of this kind of polemic conveniently ignore the independent confirmation in subsequent years from center-left voices urging higher education to re-prioritize a higher civics. Derek Bok, the former Harvard president, argued that America’s colleges and universities must provide a rigorous civic education to all graduates. Ronald Daniels, the president of John Hopkins — America’s first research university — similarly pressed his peers to consider What Universities Owe Democracy. The answer he came up with was at least one required course blending liberal arts and civics for a higher understanding of liberal democracy and American constitutionalism. Scholars from Stanford and Yale more recently argued that by abandoning civics, and eschewing an enlightened, rational patriotism, colleges and universities became a source of the civic ignorance and angry polarization undermining America’s civic culture.
SCETL’s model has inspired a new movement in higher education. New departments, colleges, and centers of civic thought and leadership have now been established in public universities in eight states — Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. Tennessee’s new institute enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the legislature; in Arizona the renewal of SCETL’s annual funding has been supported in recent years by a Democratic governor and Democratic legislators. The model we have recommended to professors, university leaders, and state leaders around the country is to establish an excellent interdisciplinary department, with its own faculty, providing courses and degrees in political and moral thought, American civic and constitutional thought, economic thought, and leadership and statecraft. A second crucial mission is to provide space for intellectual diversity and civil disagreement not only in coursework but in a public-speaker series and other speaker events; at SCETL, our series is The Civic Discourse Project. A third mission is to support the renewal of K–12 civics and history education by deploying our PhD faculty in political science, history, economics, and related fields to improve curricula, teacher preparation, and teacher professional development.
Given the claims by leading private universities that they prepare leaders for American life — and given the enormous public funding and other forms of societal support they have long enjoyed matched against the recent cratering of public confidence in them — true friends of higher education and American life should consider recent advice to adopt this reform in private universities and colleges. The need for recovery and reform at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, suggests that Ben Franklin’s university is an obvious candidate for restoring its original civic mission via an academic department, with its own faculty and degrees, offering the higher civic education that other departments can’t or won’t provide. Study of civic thought and leadership offers a blend of intellectual and civic virtues to students — including civil disagreement about important ideas; knowledge of the foundational principles and historical development of free government, particularly American constitutional democracy; practical experiences of service and leadership; and motivation to lead and serve in American life in whatever path they choose. The early success of SCETL at ASU also prompted our board of regents to establish a new graduation requirement for students in Arizona’s public universities: a course in American institutions, ideals, and self-government.
Two “public Ivies,” UNC Chapel Hill and UT Austin, have joined this reform movement by establishing new departments. Courageous Ivy League faculty recently have paved the way for considering such an unorthodox intervention at private institutions via their responses to the current leadership crises. Penn faculty and other academics have supported the Penn Forward plan, which includes reviving traditional liberal-arts and civic education. Two Yale faculty have written to colleagues calling for similar reforms. The indefatigable Harvey Mansfield recently urged Harvard colleagues and other academics to take steps toward recovering the true meaning of the Ivory Tower. This call makes perfect sense; Mansfield advised the ASU leadership on the founding of my department in 2016, and wrote our founding mission statement — which I’ve shared far and wide.
The leaders of the Ivies, and of other prestigious universities, should consider establishing departments of civic thought and leadership to make institutional space for students, faculty, alums, trustees, donors, and community members to participate in the restoration of the excellent education and research — and cultivation of intellectual and civic virtues — that both higher education and American civic culture so deeply need.
Paul Carrese serves as the Jack Miller Center’s Senior Fellow for Civic Thought and Leadership. In this position, he provides strategic direction and consultation to the JMC’s efforts to reform liberal arts and civics education on college campuses.
Carrese, a professor at Arizona State University, has just stepped down as founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) at ASU, the first of the new civics institutes at public universities. Widely considered to be a pioneer of the movement to reform civics education at the college level, he is a sought-after adviser for a number of initiatives including the K-12 study Educating for American Democracy, the Civitas Institute at University of Texas at Austin, and the Program on Public Discourse at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The national reform movement launched by SCETL at ASU has spread to 8 states; with 10 new departments being built, in Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio; 2 programs underway, in Utah and Mississippi; and at UT Austin a new college, the School of Civic Leadership, to house the Civitas Institute. While on research leave from ASU in 2024, Carrese will advise the JMC’s support for this national reform movement in higher education and be drafting a book on the theory and practice of American civic education.
Prior to founding SCETL, he was a professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy for nearly two decades, where he developed an innovative honors program combining liberal arts education and leadership training. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a Fulbright fellow at the University of Delhi, and has held fellowships at Harvard University and Princeton University. Carrese holds a Ph.D. in political science from Boston College, and is the author or editor of several books including Democracy in Moderation: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Sustainable Liberalism and The Cloaking of Power: Montesquieu, Blackstone, and the Rise of Judicial Activism.
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